This past week has been spent with family, and although we had lots planned when we arrived in Titusville, much was set aside to reconnect and relax with sister and niece. This visit had been a long time coming so we decided that days devoted to conversation and cooking meals together trumped lots of activities. We did explore Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore and if you find yourself in and around Titusville, I would recommend both. And of course, there is the Kennedy Space Center.
Leaving Titusville behind and arriving at our final stop in Florida for the winter, we decided to play tourist one last time before we head further north, and where better than in our nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine. In doing research you will find there is plenty to occupy your time here, whether you enjoy history, the beach, culture, nightlife, shopping, or delving into the paranormal. And when you tire of all this sightseeing, there are many interesting restaurants downtown to saté your appetite.
The trolley seems to be the most popular way to traverse this city, with about 20 stops along the route, allowing you to hop off and on at your leisure, all while getting a little history lesson from your driver. We prefer to walk instead, planning our own route and getting some exercise, unless the city we are in is too spread out and St. Augustine is a very walkable city. There are plenty of brochures to grab from the visitor center to educate you about this historic city and a public parking garage right at the visitor center that can be accessed for $10/day.
This is where colonial America began, 55 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. First visited by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, St. Augustine was later founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. Over three years Avilés would import 500 African slaves to this city, the first slaves brought to this country, a sad piece of history.
Over many years the Spanish, French, British and finally the United States fought for control of St. Augustine. I am not a huge history buff so I will leave you to read the details online if you are interested. There are two forts in the city, Fort Matanzas and Castillo de San Marcos, for those who love history, and we found both to be interesting.
Our interest in this historic city lies more in the striking architecture found around the Old Town area, particularly some of the old hotels and churches, almost all that were influenced by Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil executive and partner to John D. Rockefeller. In the 1880’s Mr. Flagler decided that St. Augustine should be a winter resort for the wealthy. The stunning details in the Lightner Museum (formerly Hotel Alcazar), Flagler College (once the grounds for the Ponce de Leon luxury hotel), and the Memorial Presbyterian Church were certain to lure the affluent.
Tours are given at many sights around the city, some for a small fee and some that are free of charge. We found the docent-led tour of the Memorial Presbyterian Church to be fascinating, and the architecture had already drawn us in.
Built in 1889 by Henry Flagler, this is the only Presbyterian church of its kind in the world. It is of the Venetian Renaissance architecture style, shown in the copper dome and ornate terra-cotta frieze, and was inspired by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is breathtaking both inside and out.
This sacred building was a labor of love for Henry Flagler, dedicated to his daughter Jennie Louise Benedict, who died due to childbirth complications the same year this church was constructed, hence the word “memorial” in the name. Every last detail reflects Flagler’s loving touch, particularly the 92 stained-glass windows, designed by German artist Herman Schladermundt. Each window represents a segment of the “Apostle’s Creed” and they are all spectacular.
I must admit that until we arrived in St. Augustine I did not realize the importance of this city to the Civil Rights movement. On June 9, 1964, Andrew Jackson Young, Jr., Civil Rights activist, led a march from Lincolnville, a St. Augustine district founded by former slaves, to the downtown plaza. Mr. Young was sent to the city by his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize a peaceful human rights protest. When his group arrived at the downtown plaza, they were confronted by a large white mob and were beaten. Always vigilant to Dr. King’s non-violent strategy, they walked away. This was a pivotal event that aided in the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.
These bronze footsteps, incorporated into the sidewalk that runs diagonally through the plaza, honor this leader who received his first beating in the Civil Rights movement.
Our nation’s oldest city is rich in history, expressed in both her simplest of buildings and her most opulent. Although a part of her story reflects some of our nation’s less than proudest moments, St. Augustine still maintains a charm all her own.
From here we continue north into the “Peach State” ~ Georgia.